Paul Ryan, roundly supported as the GOP choice for vice president in 2012 by conservatives and tea party advocates, has received a primary opponent for his first congressional district seat. With the weekend endorsement of Sarah Palin, the challenger is about to begin receiving scrutiny.
Paul Nehlen, a business owner who openly supports Donald Trump for president, may be looking to capitalize on many of the same issues that helped propel the real estate mogul: trade and immigration.
Nehlen’s modest campaign website includes tabs on the economy, trade, immigration, and jobs. At the bottom is a declaration: “MORE PERSPECTIVES ON THE ISSUES COMING SOON . . .”
Recalling his own background in construction, Nehlen is also perhaps attempting to commandeer one of the slogans used against Trump and turn it against Ryan. He has driven across Wisconsin in a truck emblazoned with “Dump Paul Ryan.” Visitors to his website can also purchase miniature stress balls with the same message.
In his announcement in March, Nehlen stated that he was taking on the speaker of the House on a platform charging:
“Paul Ryan’s embrace of big government spending, his continued support of illegal immigration and imported workers, and his championing of the job-killing trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership betrays me, this district, and this nation.”
Although not explicitly identifying with the tea party, Nehlen echoes some of the concerns made by such activists in 2009-2010, particularly with lawmakers’ habit of passing bills without first reading them:
“Americans should have the opportunity to read everything before it’s passed. There shouldn’t be anything that our elected representatives pass that we don’t have the opportunity to read.”
With his stated reluctance to support presumptive presidential nominee Trump, Speaker Ryan is drawing the ire of party conservatives and activists. He is also beginning to draw comparisons with Eric Cantor, the House majority leader who was surprisingly defeated by economics professor Dave Brat in 2014.
The comparisons are likely to increase as Nehlen’s campaign gains publicity. However, the defeat may be difficult to repeat.
Brat was little-known before he won and no major poll showed him pulling the upset. With three months before the August 9 primary, Ryan and his supporters have time to take Nehlen seriously.
To date, Ryan has not spoken much of Paul Nehlen, but with Palin’s endorsement, he may be compelled to pay attention to his opponent. Doing so could present the opportunity to press the political novice on policy details. After Brat won the primary he began receiving probing policy questions and he initially struggled to provide cogent answers.
Additionally, Nehlen’s identification with Trump may not necessarily benefit him. Despite Trump’s success in the Republican primaries, Wisconsin was one of his poorer showings. Sen. Ted Cruz won the first congressional district by a significant margin.
The task at hand for Paul Nehlen is likely to be steep, not the least of which is defeating a sitting House speaker, which has only happened once since the Civil War. However, he is looking to spread a message to the voters of the district that their voice is not being well-served by their representative.